September 9, 2014

COOPER | Farewell Captain, You Will be Missed

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I don’t remember how I became a Yankee fan. I was never a sporty girl. … I ran away from every ball that whizzed in my direction and “played horses” with my friends when we were supposed to be playing soccer. My father, a 1986 Engineering grad, isn’t athletic either, but like most men he enjoys sports. Stuck with two girls born only 21 months apart (my brother would take five more years to arrive), he had no choice but to try to teach us the little that he knew. We tried soccer and basketball, and I failed miserably at both. I was uncoordinated and unmotivated. What was the point of chasing balls anyway?

But somehow, at the age of six, I found myself at my very first Yankees Game. It was Memorial Day, so the promotion was a star-spangled Beanie Buddie. Always a lover of stuffed animals, I felt like I had just won the lottery. And the rest was history.

Of course, it wasn’t the silly stuffed animal that really captivated me that day. It was the year 2000 and the Yanks were at their best, coming off of two consecutive World Series wins. Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill were on the field, and Andy Pettite, who would become one of my favorite pitchers, was on the starting rotation. They had 25 World Series titles at the time, a record in both the MLB and in professional sports that still holds today. In short, the 2000 New York Yankees were a force to be reckoned with. Six year old me was not only impressed, she was awed. They were practically invincible.

We parked my dad’s 1993 Toyota Camry under the bridge by the stadium. The Bronx was even sketchier back then than it is today, but we figured that no one would care to steal such an old, beat up car. The stadium itself had a grittiness to it that was at once both familiar and repulsive. Smells of hot dogs and popcorn weaved their way through the enormous crowd of navy and pinstripe-clad fans. Our seats were in the nosebleeds, the steep angle of the stadium making the players look like tiny dots on the field, especially to a short six-year-old girl. I was both excited and overwhelmed by the fanfare. We stood for the national anthem and clapped wildly when the Yanks took the field. My invincible team. I knew that they would win that day. In my mind, how could they not?

I don’t remember much after that. I don’t know who was pitching, how each inning went, or even who the opposing team was. What I do remember though, is that when I heard Bob Sheppard call “Number 2, Derek Jeter. Number 2,” to the plate for the first time that day, my life as a Yankee fan was forever changed.

Derek Jeter was drafted by the Yankees in 1992, the year before I was born. He made his major league debut in 1995, when I was two years old. By the time I saw him in 2000, he was 26 years old and had begun to make a name for himself as the Yankees’ leading shortstop. He was young, attractive and what I call a “true Yankee” — meaning that he had not played on any other team. He became my favorite player from the moment I first saw him step up to the plate. Everyone knew by then that Jeter was something special. When he was at bat, he filled the stadium with fiery enthusiasm. Of course, almost everyone cheered for the Yankees on their home turf, but everyone really screamed for Jeter. He was the kind of player that everyone would learn to respect.

We left the game early —after the seventh inning stretch — because my sister and I were too young to have the stamina to watch the whole game. Bellies full of hot dogs and lemon ices, we clutched our stuffed animals and listened to the rest of the game on the car radio. When the Yankees won, I wanted to cry out with joy. From then on, I was hooked.

Now that we’d had our introduction to Yankee fandom, my father was determined to make Yankee games a big part of our childhood. But for me, watching the Yankees play was always about watching Jeter. I lived for the World Series that year, religiously watching each game as the Yankees triumphed over hometown rivals the New York Mets (which I did not hesitate to rub in the face of every Met fan at school). Jeter was a star, racking up hit after hit, earning him the title of World Series MVP. I blushed when my dad told a group of Jeter-crazed teen girls at my second or third Yankee game that I was a Jeter fan too. That may have also been the game where I bought my pink Derek Jeter shirt. I sobbed when, on Opening Day of the 2003 season, Jeter dislocated his shoulder while sliding into third base. I watched from the TV in my den as he rode off the field on a golf cart, giving the fans a smile and a wave as he disappeared under the stands. My Iron Man wasn’t quite as invincible as I thought he was. But my heart lifted when, many weeks later, I watched Jeter get back in the groove in some Minor League games. The camera focused on him for the entire broadcast, so my dad and I dubbed it “The Derek Jeter Show.” When he was named captain that year, I wasn’t surprised. Jeter was always the captain to me.

As the years went by, my interest in baseball waned. We moved to London for a while, I grew up, and life got in the way. But I never forgot about my Yankees, and of course I never forgot about Jeter. I was studying abroad in Israel, sitting at my desk, when one of my Cornell roommates wrote on my wall and broke the news. Derek Jeter would retire at the end of the season. I didn’t know how to feel, so I dismissed the message and moved on.

However, with two weeks left of the season, I have to face the facts. Derek Jeter is going to retire. The player who has defined my experience as a Yankee fan will no longer be on the field. The reality is still refusing to sink in as I write this.

Farewell, Captain. Thank you for making me the fan that I am today. The field won’t look the same without you.